Books·How I Wrote It

Why Aisha Sasha John believes poetry is the scholarship of 'aliveness'

How dance, sound and conversation led to Aisha Sasha John's new poetry collection, I have to live.
Aisha Sasha John is the author of I have to live, a poetry collection. (McClelland & Stewart/Yuula Benivolski)

Aisha Sasha John's sophomore collection Thou landed her on shortlists for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and ReLit Poetry Award. Her latest is I have to live. Below, John describes the meditative process behind the powerful collection.

Poetry as scholarship

"I'm a thinker and I'm alive on earth. I'm trying to understand what it means to be here. What does it mean to be on this Earth, in this form, at this time? I'm trying to understand 'aliveness' in the broadest sense possible because it's the one thing we're all given. There are structures and systems that are systematically trying discourage us from asking the big questions. But asking those questions and coming up with my own answers is part of how my life is joyful and delicious. I have this ongoing private scholarship and my books constitute and are a record of that scholarship."

Listening exercises

"I don't seek out to write a poem. There are two types of approaches that the book has. They're both deliberate, but differently. First, I'm a dancer. I take this dance class with a teacher who studied Korean Zen for many years. It's a really beautiful, special class on Saturday mornings. In the same way that people do yoga and then meditate, every Saturday I'd go to dance class and then do my listening practice. My listening practice consists of — and this is something I've been doing my whole career — recording [sounds] and trying to not discriminate anything that I was hearing. I would do it often in a café. The material was my mental reality, my outside environment and my physical reality. The practice is to listen and to receive and to record whatever in the moment announces itself to me. That's one of the approaches that led to poems in the book.

"The other way is inspired. I'd be in my life and if I had an epiphany, whether it was through reading something and making connections, or being in the world and seeing an animal or being in conversation with people. A lot of my epiphanies happen through relation, through love, through conversation, so then I would record or try to capture that."

Declaring your authority

"When I was writing my previous book Thou, one of the constraints I placed upon myself is that I would only make declarative sentences. No questions. No speculation. Just things that I could assert. The reason I did that was that I was thinking about writers that I liked and what they had in common. I noticed that there was a strength of voice, which was the product of these declarative sentences.

"I'm a woman. I'm an African woman. I live in a capitalist, white supremacy. I'm told that I'm not the authority, that I have to seek other authorities in order to know how to live. And that is not what I believe. I am my own authority. So the work is declarative. It's been a process for me to speak like that. To understand the problem as being one of power and authority and who we typically believe power and authority lie in. I hope that through my work, other people will understand that they can be the centre of their own life. They do have power."

Aisha Sasha John's comments have been edited and condensed.